By: Dan Lawton
People often ask me where my ideas come from. The non-cliché truth is this: Everywhere. Whether it’s a scene in book or a movie that could be explored further, a news story, a conversation, or a banal moment in the string of those that make up our daily lives, creativity comes from the subconscious mind, often when I’m not thinking about it. The best ideas reveal themselves when I’m being mindless and have granted myself permission to think freely about the nothingness of the mundane. Think: while absorbed in the steam of a hot shower, a long drive on the open road, or a secluded stroll to stretch my legs and enjoy the fresh air.
I’m a novelist. I’m also a copy editor and writer for an ad agency. Being around other creative people in a creative environment every day only further ignites the flame for creativity that already burns hot. While that flame often manifests itself in social copy or a banner ad or a concept for a client, the wick never quite seems to disappear. The ideas for longer form storytelling can come out of these smaller asks, and they often do. When the creative part of the subconscious is free to drift, some interesting (and not so interesting) ideas are born—many of which don’t align with client work. Enter: the novel.
While the inspiration for “The Green House”—my fifth novel, which was published on July 30, 2020—came from a situation encountered in my personal life, the idea for my sixth—titled “That Was Before,” forthcoming in June 2021—came at the office. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a very structured, eat the same foods at the same time every day, routine-loving person. That same top-level structure applies to my writing. My schedule is often this: feed the inevitable “itch” to write that arises in the fall, keep feeding it throughout the winter until it’s satisfied in the spring (if all goes well), and take the summer off to reset. So when it was late summer when the concept for my sixth novel came to me during one of my routine lunchtime walks, it was far from a surprise.
There was once a time when I wrote every day—this is where my process allows for spontaneity. Whether this stemmed from the desire to hone my craft or just to feed the insatiable appetite I had for it, there were very few days off. Since then, the more I’ve done it, the less my process involves that—sitting down and writing. I’ve learned what it takes for me to write a novel, so I’m more sporadic these days and often write in spurts. Part of my creative process is thinking—not only about what comes next in the current story, but also beyond that. When I’m not actively writing, my mind continuously wanders about the next story. I’ll see something that sparks a thought, and that idea will be immediately jotted down in my digital notebook. Sometimes—like what’s happening now—I’m planning for what I’ll write two, three or more books from now. It’s a process that never stops, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Only once so far have I been in the middle of a project only to scrap it for a new, more pressing idea—which turned into “Plum Springs,” my fourth novel—although the temptation is often difficult to pass up.
The key for me is being excited about the project. Whether it’s the plot or a character or a feeling I can’t ignore, writing something I would enjoy reading is crucial for me. While I’ve received some validation about my ability over the past couple of books especially, there are times I read what I’ve written and cringe. Other times I read it and concede that if nothing else, I at least like it. And considering the number of times I’ll read and edit the manuscript before it becomes a published novel, enjoying the story is perhaps the most important part of the process.
Now that summer is wrapping up its final weeks and autumn is around the corner, there are a few things we can count on. One is shorter days and colder nights; two is long sleeves instead of short ones; and three is that the creative flame will continue to flicker inside me, and with it, expect a new piece of expression on the other side. See you there.
By: Dan Lawton
The differences between self- and traditional publishing are plentiful. Which is right for you? I prepared a presentation for Indie Author Day 2019 to discuss just this. Here's the presentation with my notes as a free download for informational purposes only.
By: Dan Lawton
I'm sure you've heard about this, right? It's every writer's nightmare, but it's inevitable, unavoidable, painstakingly stressful. The cursor blinks on your screen, the page a crisp white, the cooling fan humming gently next to your wrist. Your brain doesn't know where to start.
It's the blank page.
But I'm not talking about that blank page—the one that does have two words at the top, usually in the center, maybe capitalized: Chapter One. No, not that blank page. The query letter—that's what I'm talking about here, and it's brutal. You've spent four, six, maybe twelve months or more writing, editing, and polishing your manuscript, and you're finally ready to send it out into the world. Exciting, right? Or petrifying. Depends on how you look at it—is your glass half-full, or half-empty? For me, I'm usually a glass half-full type of guy, so it's an exciting time. But how do you even do that? How do you send your book out? To whom do you send it to? Let's assume you've already figured that out, okay? If you haven't, check out QueryTracker.net. I'll get into it more in another post.
So, what is it, exactly? The query letter. It's a lot of things, actually:
1) It's your book proposal. It's your elevator pitch. It's a one page document that you send to literary agents and/or publishers to try to sell your book. It's a 300 word summary of your 80,000, 90,000, maybe 100,000 word novel. What makes your book interesting? What's the hook? Why will people want to read it? Why should they care? You have 300 words—go!
2) It's a plot summary. You've spent 400 pages telling a story, now you must shrink that to two, maybe three paragraphs. No big deal, right? Have three plot twists? You don't have enough words to share that. Have a group of unique characters, each with their own in depth personality and quirks and background experiences? You don't have enough words to share that, either. Have a deep, moving, thought-provoking literary theme present throughout the pages in your book? Sorry, not enough words. 300 words isn't much. Think of it this way: this post is over 350 already. Yikes. Double spaced, you can get somewhere between 200 and 220, maybe 230 words on a page. So, you have one page (single spaced) to describe 400 pages of your work. But it's even less than that, really. Here's why:
3) It's also your writer's resume. Have you had anything published in the past? Won an award? Have a MFA? Relevant work experience? This has to go in the query letter too. Keep it short.
4) Why did you reach out to this particular agent or publisher? Do they represent or publish someone you admire? Do they represent the type of projects you've written? Tell them.
5) What is your book similar to? What are some comparative titles in the marketplace? What makes it different from those? Share that.
And remember, you have 300 words, give or take. The shorter the better, I've found. Agents and publishers receive hundreds of query letters a week, thousands a year, so yours has to stand out. Their attention spans are short—wouldn't yours be too if fifty people tried to sell you something today?
How do you do it? How to you get a literary agent or a publisher to pay attention to you? How do you get them to read your entire query letter without deleting the email (most, if not all querying is done via email, now—writers used to have to physically mail them all out)? Or better, how do you get them to want to read your manuscript? How do you get them to want to actually work with you? Those are questions for another day. This is about the basics of a query letter—those are not basic questions. This is the first step—write a good query letter. You won't even be considered without one. This is the general structure of a query letter:
[Literary Agent's Name]
[Agency City, State Zip]
¶ In the opening paragraph, share the details of your book—title, word count, genre. You can also include comparative titles, here. Keep this limited to 1-2 sentences.
¶ What's your elevator pitch, your one-liner, your hook? Put it here. It should be one sentence.
¶¶¶ Use the next two or three paragraphs to describe your book—a quick synopsis; an introduction of the protagonist, maybe the antagonist; explain the dilemma and the odds (what are the circumstances—plot—and what are the character(s) up against. This is the meat of your query letter, and without question, the most important part. This is what will either turn an agent or publisher on, or turn them off, when it comes to your manuscript.
¶ Use this paragraph to talk about your writing credentials—who you are, why you wrote the book, what your writing background is. Keep this short, as well. 2-3 sentences.
¶ Conclusion. Tell the agent or publisher why you chose to submit to them. Also in this paragraph, it's a good idea to reiterate that your manuscript is complete and available, should they want to read it (DO NOT send out query letters for fiction projects until the manuscript is done—non-fiction is different, though). Also mention if you've included any materials with your email—a synopsis, for example, or sample pages—but don't do that unless you're requested to in the agent/publisher's submission guidelines. Look at their website to find out what they want you to send to them—some want just the query letter, others want a synopsis too, and some want sample pages (5, 10, 50, maybe 100). Send them exactly what they asked for, nothing more.
Signature line(s), which include your name and all relevant contact details.
That's it. That's a query letter. Keep it to one page, if you can. Any longer is too long. Use this format to pitch your book to literary agents and/or publishers. I signed with a publisher using this format for one book, and then with a literary agent for another book. It worked for me.
In future posts, I'll delve into this further, and other aspects of the writing world as well—writing, editing, querying, self-publishing vs traditional, royalties and advances, what literary agents do, etc.
Writers—stay tuned! And get working on that query letter.